Deep Community, Racism, and Healing (Psalm 133)

    Psalm 133 is a road trip Psalm. 

If you read it in the Bible, you may see in the tag line that it is from a special category of psalms called “Songs of Ascent.”  The people of Israel were expected to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year.  People would travel from the lowlands uphill to Jerusalem with their families and their neighbors.  For days and sometimes weeks, they would be on the road together, eating together, sleeping together.  You can imagine that it would be a very bonding experience … and nerve-wracking.  (Why is it that our families can drive us crazy more than anyone else?)   While these Israelites were traveling to Jerusalem day after day - without the aid of portable DVD players, tablets, or smart phones - they would sing group prayer songs together.  Psalm 133 is one of these songs.  It was their road trip song.

    You should also know that Israel had a bad history of national division. 

If you think your family is bad, you should have seen Israel.  It all started with conflict between brothers - Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and the other brothers.  And it continued with the tribes that these brothers fathered.  For generations, they were a separated along North-South lines, much like North and South Korea.  Even after the nation was reunited, they still carried lots of inner hostility and prejudices against people from other tribes and regions.  Unity was always a problem for them.  But when they journeyed to Jerusalem to worship God together, at least for a while, those conflicts began to fade.
    We know something about division.  It seems like someone’s always mad about something these days.  Fox News only has one volume - shouting.  Liberals aren’t any better - just a little quieter and subtler in their scorn and judgment.  In the church, not only are we divided along denominational lines, but we keep hurling attacks about which group is leading us off the deep end.  This week’s shooting in South Carolina highlights once again that - in Martin Luther King’s words - “Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week.”  We understand division.

    To really get this psalm, we also need to know what’s up with anointing oil. 

Anointing oil was kind of a big deal for Israel.  They used it as a symbol of dedication - making something holy and special.  God even gave Israel a special - and very expensive - recipe for anointing oil in Exodus 30:

Take the finest spices: twelve pounds of liquid myrrh, half that amount (that is, six pounds) of sweet-smelling cinnamon, six pounds of sweet-smelling cane, and twelve pounds of cassia ...  Also take four quarts of olive oil, and mix all these things like a perfume to make a holy olive oil. This special oil must be put on people and things to make them ready for service to God... and they will be very holy.  (Exodus 30:23-30)

    So this was a powerful perfume that functioned as a sign of God’s Holy Spirit making something holy.  When Moses anointed Aaron, the smell of this spiced oil would have filled the whole room.  For days, maybe weeks, Aaron and his clothes would have smelled like the holy, “spicy” oil of God’s Spirit - reminding him and everyone else that he was marked for a holy purpose.
    We don’t really have anything like anointing oil in American culture.  We might put on perfume or cologne for a date.  Some of us might get a tattoo to signify an extremely important life event.  Sometimes people have a dedication service for a building or business or ship, and they dig the first dirt or cut the ribbon or smash a bottle of champaign.  When we graduate, we go through a ceremony and get a degree we might frame on a wall.  Anointing oil is like all of that, with the added bonus of the oil representing God’s Spirit.

    We also need to think about Israel’s geography.

If you look at a satellite image of Israel, you will see a few stark differences in colors.  In the north and west, especially near Mount Hermon, the dominant color is green.  They get plenty of water.  Mount Hermon gets such heavy dews that in the morning the dew covers the grass as if it had rained all night.  Mount Hermon was where wealthy Israelites went on vacation.  It was the bread basket and the tourist center of the nation.
    On the other hand, Jerusalem (built on Mount Zion) is a dry climate - especially on the south and eastern sides.  There the dominant colors are brown and gray.  Even though Mount Zion is the spiritual and political center of Israel, water is scarce there.

    Here’s the last bit of background information you need.  For Jews, one of the key concepts of their religion is life or “chaim.” 

God is the source of all life, and the point of our existence is “life” - or deep living, true living.  This is why Jesus said, “My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life” or in the old wording “abundant life” (John 10:10).  Jesus was saying, “My purpose is to give you what you’ve always been longing for - real, deep, true LIFE - chaim.”  In fact, still today, Jews almost always use the toast “l’chaim!” - “To life!”.  They know that life is all about living true life through God.

    OK.  Now, we’re actually ready to read Psalm 133:

A song of ascents. Of David.

How good and pleasant it is
    when God’s people live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head,
    running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
    down on the collar of his robe.

It is as if the dew of Hermon
    were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
    even life forevermore.

    The focus of this prayer-song is Deep Holy Community.

Deep Holy Community is LAVISH. 

It is abundant.  There is more than enough.  There is so much that it’s messy.  It overflows.  It spills over.  It’s like the holy, spicy oil that was poured over Aaron’s head and ran down his beard and onto the collar of his robe.  It fills the room with its aroma.  Deep Holy Community is like the dew of Mount Hermon that gets everything soaking wet.   Deep Holy Community is like a thanksgiving or Christmas meal, where there is enough food for seven meals not one.   Deep holy community is like when you fill someone’s glass with some foamy goodness, and it fizzes and foams over the top.  When we experience Deep Holy Community, our hearts are filled to overflowing.

Deep Holy Community is SANCTIFYING. 

That’s a big religious word, but to sanctify simply means “to make holy.”  Deep Holy Community makes us holy.  Remember the purpose of that anointing oil.  It was to mark Aaron and the worship tools as holy - marked for a special purpose for God.  Deep Holy Community is transformative.  Science backs this up.  People in counseling get great benefits from participating in healthy honest communities as well as the one-on-one time with the counselor.  Addiction recovery is far more effective when we do it in community; that’s why there are so many 12-step groups.  Across the board, people with strong social support systems are healthier and happier.  Simply put: deep community makes us better.  Psalm 133 says that God gives us blessing in that place where brothers and sisters live together in harmony - in Deep Holy Community.  Deep Holy Community gives us the strength and passion and love to actually follow Christ.

Deep Holy Community is LIFE-GIVING. 

Remember the green slopes around Mount Hermon and the dry hills around Jerusalem’s Mount Zion.  Imagine how Jerusalem would change if the dews of Hermon fell there!  Life would spring up out of the dust.  Grass would grow.  Flowers would bloom.  Trees would bear fruit.  The whole landscape would change.  Deep Holy Community community does that for us.  Deep Holy Community is the life-everlasting invading our life on earth.  Deep Holy Community is “God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”  Deep Holy Community is God’s eternal life in our temporary world.  Deep Holy Community is like getting a shot of heavenly antibiotics to boost our immune system or Spiritual B-12 to improve our energy.  Deep Holy Community gives us God’s life in our life.

    But as good as deep community is, and as much as we want it as a church, we have to admit that we don’t have that much of it. 

We tend to live fractured, isolated lives as broken, busy individuals.  We’re struggling just to spend time with our immediate family - much less to have any experience of deep community.  
    What’s worse is that our churches and our nation and our globe are increasingly conflicted.  We are polarized along political, economic, religious, and ethnic lines.  

    This week a young white supremacist walked into a black church and killed nine people.  Political pundits, bloggers, and social media exploded with comments on the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.  But comedian John Stewart gave some of the most interesting analysis.

   I love his description of the problem.  We have “a gaping racial wound that just will not heal, but we pretend does not exist.” 

Yes.  This is true.  We have a deep social would in our country, and it has ramifications in everything from education to housing to health care to churches.  We cannot pretend any longer.

    But I disagree with Stewart’s conclusion:

“I’m confident though that by acknowledging it, by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do —- [um, anything.  We won’t do anything.] Yeah, that’s who we are.”
    I agree that this has been our tendency at many times - to acknowledge racism and then to ignore it.  It’s easier to mourn it and then move on right?  Especially for us white people.  “Oh that sucks … but I don’t really know what to do about that, so I’m just going to take the kids to T-ball, now.”  I agree that this is the easy path, perhaps what seems like the most likely path.  
    But I disagree.  That’s not who we are.  That’s who we’ve been.  That’s the kind of people we’ve acted like as a nation and as the Church.  But that’s not who we really are.  That’s not who God is making us to be.  That’s not where the life is, and we’re hungry for real life!

How good and pleasant it is
    when God’s people live together in unity! …
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
    even life forevermore.

    Stewart was partly right.  We have a gaping wound of division and pain, and our natural societal tendency is to turn away because it just seems too painful and too complex to deal with.
    But Liz Mosbo VerHage (a pastor from Seattle) explained this week that the Church must be different.

The wider church and the world will be shaped by how we choose to engage or     turn away from this kind of death. Particularly those of us with any voice, leadership, influence, and the privilege to choose whether to engage issues of death and race – it is time to get in the game. Because of course, this is no game — these issues of racism and how we choose to see truthfully or speak up — these are literally matters of life and death for the black community. So it is past time to choose life ... To choose life, to advocate for our people – all people – in the Body of Christ.

   Stewart was right about the problem, but he was wrong about the solution.

    We are the Church of Jesus Christ.  We are a people of healing.  We are a people of redemption.  We are a people of reconciliation.

Here we are—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, the province of Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and the areas of Libya around Cyrene, visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans, and Arabs. And we all hear these people speaking in our own languages about the wonderful things God has done! (Acts 2:9-11)

In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.  (Colossians 3:11)

For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. …  Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death. … We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. (Ephesians 2:14-21)

After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. And they were shouting with a great roar, “Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne and from the Lamb!”  (Revelation 7:9-10)
How good and pleasant it is
    when God’s people live together in unity! …
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
    even life forevermore.

    So what’s it going to be church?  Are we going to look into this great racial abyss and then walk away and forget what we look like? 

Or are we going to do something?  What can we do?  Let me suggest two things.

Advocate for diversity. 

Did you know that there is not a single black teacher in the entire Duneland School system?  That’s not right.  We need to change that.  Did you know that landlords in Chesterton have systematically discriminated against minorities?  I know because some have told me.  We need to change that.  When your company is hiring, ask for more diversity.  When you get the chance to advocate for diversity within the systems where you live and work, speak up.  When you are forming a group, mix like crazy (young and old, black and white and Latino, straight and gay, Christian and atheist).  Use the power you have to advocate for healing.

Embrace diversity. 

We live in a very white community, but that’s part of the problem. You may not see a lot of diversity, so you need to embrace and affirm it whenever you see it.  Yes, I’m talking about race, but I’m also talking about economic diversity and social diversity.  And, I’m also talking about just plain embracing your neighbor.  As the church, we have the opportunity to break down the walls of isolation that separate one family from another.  We can become who we are - one big family all together.  

Eat together, play together, party together, worship together.  Get your kids together with other kids.  Do life together intentionally.  And then we’ll find the truth of Psalm 133.

How good and pleasant it is
    when God’s people live together in unity! …
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
    even life forevermore.